GIVE IT TO ME STRAIGHT, SANTA! I CAN TAKE IT!
SPILL MAGAZINE EXPOSES SOME OF THE BEST/WORST 2023 CHRISTMAS RELEASES (PART ONE)
As The Beatles once sang, “Christmastime is here again, it ain’t been around since you know when.” That means a whole new crop of Christmas releases. Sure there is a finite amount of Christmas songs, but these artists are digging deep for lost treasures and writing their own songs. So, let us look at some new Christmas music for 2023. Merry Christmas, get out the eggnog, and enjoy!
2023 CHRISTMAS ALBUMS
Bing Crosby’s Christmas Gems
Primary Wave Music
October 27, 2023
At one time Bing Crosby was synonymous with Christmas. His “White Christmas” was one of the largest selling singles of all time, and most had his Christmas album. So, it is always exciting when Bing Crosby releases a ‘new’ album full of Christmas songs. Bing Crosby’s Christmas Gems features 14 tracks, several of which are previously unreleased. Bing duets with his wife Kathryn on two numbers, “Away In A Manger” and “Christmas Island”, as well as with Ella Fitzgerald, “Marshmallow World”. They sound great, fun, and full of Christmas joy. There is also the seldom heard “The Night Before Christmas” which was recorded for Armed Forces Radio in 1968.
Of course, his duet with David Bowie, “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth”, closes out the album, and there is a lot of Christmas cheer throughout both sides. It is nice to have “The Secret Of Christmas” as part of the collection, as it is a brilliant song, with a strong melody and fantastic lyrics. The album is mixed beautifully, and the lost gems such as “How Lovely Is Christmas” and “White World Of Winter”, are welcome additions to Crosby’s Christmas catalogue. Bing Crosby’s Christmas Gems serves as a reminder as to what made Crosby stand out and so special, and not just with Christmas music. His delivery, his vocals, and the musical arrangements are always stellar, and one can’t help but miss him with each spin of the turntable.
Phil Manzanera and Andy Mackay Featuring The Players
November 17, 2023
Christmas was originally recorded in 1988 by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and Andy MacKay, with help from some of their friends, such as Nico Brown, Chris Turner, and Dick Preston. The album is entirely acoustic and instrumental, and it is exquisite. The songs flow into each other and are all perfectly arranged and produced. All the songs are traditional classic Christmas carols and are performed very authentically. Although Manzanera and MacKay could have turned the songs into prog rock classics, they stayed with the original melodies and stunning melodies. Some of the songs are very familiar, such as“Joy To The World”, “The Holly And The Ivy”, and “Silent Night”, but they have also resurrected some obscure titles that have been long forgotten such as “The Boars Head Carol”, “As With Gladness”, and “The Rising Of The Sun”. These are absolutely perfect.
Andy MacKay produced the album which is being re-released this year. It is making its debut on vinyl and has been remastered. It always sounded fantastic, mainly because it is so beautifully arranged and recorded, but with this re-release it sounds sharper and warmer at the same time. That is quite a feat. It is so great to have this album available again, and it should be embraced by all who love Christmas carols.
A Joyful Sound
November 24, 2023
Kelly Finnigan, of Monophonics fame, has released a few solo albums. In 2020 he released A Joyful Sound, an album of new Christmas music written by Finnigan, with help from some of his friends. It took on a life of its own. It became a go to for DJs and found its way into people’s hearts. The music is a mix of soul and rock n’ roll, with a tinge of psychedelic thrown in for good measure. It is a fascinating album, and it is easy to see why it has been embraced by so many people.
Finnigan, a record collector who loves singles, has re-released the album this year as a special box set of five singles. This is how albums originated, as a set of singles, of course this was before 12-in vinyl had been perfected. This is a cool and beautiful package. The songs sound as good as ever, although the title track, “A Joyful Sound” is an abridged version, and the reprise from the original album is not included as such. But this is a small complaint. It is a wonderful package and fans will certainly take to this box set.
A Christmas Offering From The Cowsills
October 27, 2023
The Cowsills were a family act of six siblings whose mother later joined the band. They actually served as the blueprint for The Partridge Family. In the 1960s they had a lot of hits, and some may be surprised to learn that they are still together. Now down to a trio, they are still touring and recording. A Christmas Offering From The Cowsills is a case in point. Although two of the three tracks were recorded in the 1990s, and there is only one new song on the EP, it is still a fine Christmas EP.
The opening track, “Christmastime (Song For Marissa)”, is beautifully arranged and quite lovely. But the selling point for this EP is the wonderful acapella version of “Winter Wonderland”. It is the highlight of A Christmas Offering From The Cowsills. Their voices blend beautifully and it has a wonderful nostalgic vibe to it. It is worth the price of admission alone.
November 3, 2023
Gregory Porter’s Christmas Wish has a lovely blend of jazz and pop and gives a tip of the hat to the greats before him, such as Nat King Cole. This album is full of Christmas classics, both pop and traditional. He also contributes his own songs, the powerful “Everything’s Not Lost”, and the perfect closing track “Heart For Christmas”. He has a fantastic voice, and he takes on each song with a great deal of passion. While he sticks to the traditional arrangements with the carols, he does let his own style come through with some of the more jazz/pop standards, such as “Christmas Waltz”. It is a great version.
What is most interesting on Christmas Wish is his decision to cover some songs that don’t often find their way onto Christmas albums. Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” and Stevie Wonder’s “Someday At Christmas”. Again, although he plays it somewhat safe with his covers, they still have his stamp and sound brilliant. His cover of “Christmas Time Is Here” is another welcome addition to the collection, as Porter adds some very cool rhythm and blues vibes to it. Overall, a great Christmas album and one that would be welcomed at any party or just winding down at the end of the night.
A Very Metal Christmas II
October 27, 2023
A Very Metal Christmas II consists of Heavy Metal artists taking on traditional Christmas carols and popular Christmas standards. It opens with the Tim ‘Ripper’ Owens, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and David Ellefson’s version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. I remember when My Chemical Romance covered this song as well. Their version is tame compared to this version. And it does a nice job of setting the tone. Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes and L.A. Guns’ Traci Guns do a straight-ahead version of “O Holy Night”. Well, as straight as it can be with searing guitars and some very metal vocals. But in some ways it works.
Graham Bonnet and Mick Box are a clear highlight with their grinding and gritty version of Wham!’s “Last Christmas”, while George Lynch’s version of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is just a straight cover of Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s original. It isn’t bad, it is just not very different. Heavy Metal fans should enjoy this album. I am guessing if you like A Very Metal Christmas I, you will love A Very Metal Christmas II. There is something for every Metal fan on this album.
Blue Man Group
Overjoy To The World
October 27, 2023
Officially the oddest Christmas album I have come across in many a year. But it is still very interesting in a very unique way, and kind of cool. The Blue Man Group call this an EP, but there are nine festive tracks here and it is actually the ideal length. While they leave you wanting more, they also have a clear understanding that the joke gets old. But there are some very interesting moments on the EP. “Jingle Bones ft Drmbone” is very unexpected. The guitar work is reminiscent of The Trans Siberian Orchestra, but with the pouding of tubes, it actually works.
Elsewhere, the band got really experimental with “Holiday PVC Mashup”, which features “Dreidel, Dreidel”, “Winter Wonderland”, “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” and many more. It is very trippy and the video is well worth watching. Actually, the album works better with the visuals. But the music is so out there that one cannot stop listening. A great, yet odd, Christmas album. Perhaps not suitable for Christmas dinner with the family, but certainly a conversation piece during a party.
November 28, 2023
Nettwerk Records has come up with a very strong Christmas album. Many of their artists are here and there are some surprises. Beta Radio turned Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” into a blues song, which may sound odd, but on many levels works very well. While Bre Kennedy takes on Paul’s former writing partner’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over If You Want It)”. Kennedy strips down the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song and makes it a sparse cry out for humanity. It is quite nice. There are more traditional carols as well, such as Flower Face’s “O Holy Night”. It starts off quite silent but grows to a full crescendo. It is very dramatic and very effective.
Overall, Nettwerk have put together a very strong Christmas album, full of good spirit, and well intentioned cover versions, with a couple of originals thrown in for good measure. The album has a great deal of variety and, as the old saying goes, there is something for everyone on this collection.
2023 CHRISTMAS SINGLES
Lauren Spencer Smith
November 17, 2023
This is a sparsely arranged jazzy version of the well-known Christmas song. Here Lauren Spencer Smith slows the song down with a single piano and a stand-up bass. “Santa Baby” becomes almost bluesy instead of fun. It is an interesting version, but it is not the first time the song has been configured in this way. Smith has a great voice, and it is fine as a cover. It would be better if it was part of a compilation instead of a standalone single, but overall, it is very pleasant.
Blue Collar Records
November 29, 2023
Vancouver’s own The Matinee has released their version of Wham!’s “Last Christmas”. Gone are the swashes of synthesizers, and in their place, some very nice blues rock guitars. They slow it down a bit and add own twang. It is not so much pop music in their hands, but rather a sad song. There is just the right amount of departure from the original. A really great cover version!
Len Mizzoni Music
October 1, 2023
Len Mizzoni has released a number of Christmas songs over the years. One can only hope that at some point he gathers them all together and puts them out as a Christmas album. With “It’s Christmas”, Mizzoni continues to write, record, and produce powerful songs that have a great deal of emotion. His voice gets better with every song he produces, and this song is no exception. It is a beautiful pop song with Christmas bells, a stunning arrangement, and great lyrics. This is a song that should and needs to be played every Christmas season.
“Christmas Together (Maybe This Year)”
November 17, 2023
Odetta Hartman has a great deal of talent. With “Christmas Together (Maybe Just This Year)” she hopes to crack into the Christmas music scene. This is a thoughtful, melodic, and gentle song. She is joined by her sister Camellia Hartman, who plays beautiful violin accompaniment throughout. Odetta wrote the song, and she deserves a great deal of credit for infusing a lot of Christmas spirit throughout it. She has come up with an original Christmas tune while tipping her hat those that came before her.
December 1, 2023
Not every Christmas song is happy or about a holly jolly Christmas. Some songs remind us of loss and mourning. The longing to be with someone that is no longer here. JEEN has come up with such a song. This is a deeply moving, and seemingly personal song about loss at Christmas. It is not unlike the original “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”. It is a beautiful song with a sparse and stunning arrangement. It is a brilliant addition to Christmas songs, and although it would not be one that would be played at a rave-up Christmas party, it is one that should be heard. This is an incredible song. It is beautiful and one that will be played in this household for years to come.
“Joy To The World Rock”
December 3, 2023
This is a great hard rocking version of the traditional carol “Joy To The World”. This is really guitarist David Sizemore’s project and the guy can certainly play guitar. This is not so much heavy metal but rather a cross between grunge and hard rock. The guitars grind and the drums and bass provide a pounding beat for this rocker. It is a refreshing and fun take on an all time classic.
“Santa Claus Drank All My Beer Last Night”
June 23, 2021
Perhaps the reason “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”. Santa seemed to drink all the beer in Joy Chapman’s home last night. This is pure fun. It is well played and just plain silly. It has funny, witty lyrics and is just pure comedy. This is not meant to be taken seriously but when you have friends over, this should be one you play to lighten any mood. Chapman is a talented artist and it is great to hear her having so much fun. The “Ho-Ho-Ho” refrain with the belch is worth the price of admission alone.
“All I Want For Christmas”
Cordova Bay Records
October 14, 2022
Bend Sinister is an indie band from Vancouver, who have released quite a bit of music since 2001. They are clever and have a great detailed knowledge of music before them. They are able to incorporate this musical knowledge into their own distinct sound. For this three track EP, they cover a couple of Christmas songs, “All I Want For Christmas” and “Feliz Navidad”. Bend Sinister put their own hard driving, punk stylings on the songs, making them very interesting. But it is their original, “If Christmas Comes This Year” which steals the show. It is a wonderful song which is one part melancholy and one part reminiscing that really sums up Christmas. It is melodic and quite cheery sounding, but the lyrics give it that bite. This is a fun EP.